Journalism Student Suspended For Being a Journalist

Alex Myers is a foreign exchange student attending State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego).  While attending the school, Myers held an intern position in the school’s Public Affairs Office and everything seemed to be going well for Alex.

Alex was given a journalism assignment in his advanced journalism class to write a feature article on a public figure, so he chose the school’s men’s hockey coach, Ed Gosek.  Following good journalism practice, he sought information from coaches in other schools who had played against SUNY Oswego.  He sent an email questionnaire to the coaches at SUNY Cortland, Cornell University and Canisius College on Oct. 17.  The email read:

“My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.

I am currently writing a profile on Oswego State Hockey head coach Ed Gosek and was hoping to get a rival coaches view on Mr Gosek.

If you have time would you mind answering the following questions.

1. How do you find Mr Gosek to coach against?

2. Have you had any interactions with Mr Gosek off the ice? If so how did you find him?

3. What is your rivalry like between your school and Oswego State?

Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr Gosek does not have to be positive.”

One of the coaches, Michael Schafer from Cornell wrote back to Alex:

“Saying your comments don’t need to be positive is offensive.”

Alex quickly replied:

“Simply letting you know that this piece I am writing is not a ‘puff’ piece.”

Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with what Alex wrote, but evidently the Cornell coach did and must have complained to the SUNY Oswego administration.

On the evening of Oct 18, a letter from SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley was hand delivered to Alex informing him that he had been suspended from the school and that he had to vacate his dorm room by 6 pm the following day.  The letter spelled out the school policies that he allegedly violated and also informed him that he may be facing criminal charges.

The school accused Alex of claiming that he worked for the Office of Public Affairs instead of identifying his investigation as being part of a class assignment.  This was deemed to be ‘academic dishonesty.’  The second charge they made against him was for disruptive behavior.  This second charge could include any or all of the following: “harassment,” “intimidation,” “threats,” “conduct which inhibits the peace or safety of members of the College community,” “retaliation, harassment or coercion,” and it specified that “specifically: Campus network resources may not be used to defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.”

When Alex learned of the charges on Oct. 18, he immediately apologized for misrepresenting himself and explained that he sends out communications for OPA all the time as part of his intern duties.  He admitted that he should have clarified the purpose of the email better than he did.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has stepped in on Alex’s behalf and sent a letter to the President Stanley stating:

“[I]t is abundantly clear that Myers’ emails do not cross the threshold for any of the categories of unprotected speech SUNY Oswego has alleged. First, defamation, a narrow exception to the First Amendment that carries a specific legal definition, requires that the speaker make a knowingly false statement with the intent to injure the reputation of its target. But not only does Myers’ email not make any false statements about Gosek, it doesn’t make any factual statements about Gosek of any kind. Myers’ brief email simply encouraged other coaches to speak freely about their interactions with Gosek, regardless of whether their experiences were positive or not. That Myers’ email invited a frank and honest assessment of Gosek in no way brings it into the realm of defamation as defined under the law.”

“Nor does Myers’ email constitute harassment. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999), the Supreme Court fashioned a definition of student-on-student harassment in the educational setting that should guide SUNY Oswego here. In Davis, the Court defined harassment as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” By definition, this includes only extreme and usually repetitive behavior-behavior so serious that it would prevent a reasonable person from receiving his or her education. The standard for determining student-employee harassment should be at least as stringent as the standard set in Davis, given the relative position of power and influence Gosek, an athletic coach, enjoys compared to Myers, a student. Yet Myers’ emails clearly come nowhere close to even meeting the Davis standard.”

“Finally, threats and intimidation also have clear legal definitions, by which SUNY Oswego must abide. The Supreme Court has defined “true threats” as “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003). Likewise,Virginia v. Black states that “[i]ntimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Id. at 360. A simple reading of the Supreme Court’s guidance readily dispels any notion that Myers’ emails constitute either threats or intimidation.”

When I read Alex’s email, I saw nothing malicious, threatening or attacking.  He was only letting people know that they could be candid and honest.  Alex was asking them for their true feelings.  If what they had to say was negative, that wasn’t Alex’s fault nor would it be his fault if he printed what the coaches said.

After receiving FIRE’s letter, SUNY Oswego dropped the disruptive behavior charges against Alex, but they kept the academic dishonesty charges against him.  As of Oct. 31, Alex has been given an official warning by SUNY Oswego and allowed back in school.  A condition of his warning and reinstatement is that he complete an education assignment under his journalism advisor in which he has to report to fellow students about his experience, what he learned from it and warnings to others on things to avoid.

The actions of SUNY Oswego remind me of the Obama administration and Democratic leaders who cannot tolerate others saying anything negative against them.  They don’t care if someone is exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech, they will do whatever they can to squelch rights and speech of others.